Bruce Boudreau has been here before.
While Boudreau got off to a hot start with the Vancouver Canucks last season, this isn’t the first time a Boudreau-coached team has struggled out of the gate. After Thursday’s overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, Boudreau made that point.
“In 2016, we started 1-7-2 and we ended up winning the division,” said Boudreau.
He was referring to the 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks, who got off to a dreadful start under his coaching. In October, 2015, the Ducks won just one game — ironically also the fifth game of their season against the Wild. With just one game in their first ten games of the season, the Ducks dug themselves a big hole but they were able to climb out of it.
An 8-4-3 November got the Ducks back on track, then they slowly worked their way up the standings until a dominant 18-1-1 run from late January to early March vaulted the Ducks to the top of the Pacific Division.
By the end of the season, the Ducks had won the Pacific despite their awful start. Sure, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in seven games by the Nashville Predators and Boudreau subsequently got fired, but let’s not get bogged down by the details — the Ducks went from a 1-7-2 start to first in the Pacific.
"Once you get those good habits down, then you start winning."
Boudreau suggested that the lessons the team learns during this rough start could serve them well throughout the rest of the season.
“I told the players today, one of the things when you’re not winning, because you want to win so bad, you start learning good habits,” he said. “And the good habits keep coming — you might still lose for a couple, but once you get those good habits down, then you start winning and you keep those good habits. It’s usually a way to be successful.”
The idea that players learn good habits when they’re losing is an interesting one, because it’s often said that the opposite is true. Players who are trying too hard to win can pick up all sorts of bad habits, like trying to do it all themselves instead of using their teammates, cheating for offensive chances, or even playing too safe to avoid giving up chances.
As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
But the example of the 2015-16 Ducks could still provide some optimism, as it shows that Boudreau knows how to coach a team out of a hole. Are there any similarities between the two teams that suggest the Canucks might similarly be able to turn things around?
Well, not really.
The 2022-23 Canucks and 2015-16 Ducks are very different teams
Although both teams got off to poor starts, it was for different reasons. The Canucks can’t defend the lead, while the 2015-16 Ducks couldn’t get one in the first place. The Ducks had just 10 goals in their first 10 games and were shut out five times.
Understandably, the Ducks had an awful power play in that 1-7-2 start but their penalty kill was pretty sharp and their goaltending was good too — Frederik Andersen had a .932 save percentage in his seven starts but the Ducks didn’t win a single one of those seven games.
The Canucks have been able to put the puck in the net, even though their power play has struggled. They have 15 goals in their first five games and have held a lead in every single game. Their struggles have come in the defensive end and on special teams — they have the second-worst penalty kill at 58.8% and the 8th-worst power play at 10.5%.
Unlike the Ducks, the Canucks haven’t been getting the goaltending they would expect. Though it’s not entirely his fault given the quality of chances he’s faced, Thatcher Demko has an .861 save percentage through his four starts.
The 2015-16 Ducks climbed out of the hole they dug for several reasons. One was that their awful shooting percentage normalized. They had an insanely low 2.74% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 during October, but finished the season with a 6.57% shooting percentage — still low, but manageable.
A strong defence and exceptional goaltending from both Andersen and John Gibson made up for the fact that the Ducks weren’t a particularly high-scoring team. While they had four 20-goal scorers, their leading scorer that season, Ryan Getzlaf, had just 63 points and they finished middle of the pack in goals per game.
Where the Ducks excelled, however, was on special teams. They ended up with the best special teams in the NHL, leading the league in both power play and penalty kill percentage, the first team to do so since the 1984-85 New York Islanders.
Is there a path to success for the Canucks?
Can the Canucks follow a similar path to the Ducks? In some ways, maybe.
The Canucks simply don’t have a defence as strong as the 2015-16 Ducks, so it’s unlikely that they’ll suddenly become a defensive powerhouse and limit scoring the way they did. The 2015-16 Ducks allowed the fewest goals in the league. They’re also unlikely to suddenly have the penalty kill in the NHL.
Where the Canucks could follow the Ducks is with goaltending and the power play.
Demko is better than he’s shown in the start of the season, capable of making absurdly unlikely saves and stealing games that the Canucks otherwise had no chance of winning. He has the ability to be an elite goaltender and make the defence in front of him look a lot better.
Likewise, the Canucks should have a better power play than what they’ve shown so far. They’re 2-for-19 this season and have given up two shorthanded goals, meaning they’ve gotten no advantage whatsoever on their power play.
The Canucks have the personnel for a strong power play. Elias Pettersson looks hungry to prove his doubters wrong, Quinn Hughes is a high-end quarterback, Bo Horvat is the team’s leading power play goal scorer over the last three seasons, and J.T. Miller is an adept setup man on the left. Down low, the Canucks have the option of using sniper Brock Boeser or newcomer Andrei Kuzmenko.
By the end of last season, the Canucks had a top-10 power play and should be able to get it back to that level.
While the Canucks may not be able to follow the 2015-16 Ducks’ recipe of strong defence, they could still create their own blend of out-scoring their defensive issues while goaltending keeps them in games.
It will be up to Boudreau to get them there.